As anti-Semitism Spikes, Who’s Shutting Down the Conversation About American Jews and Aliyah?

The U.S. Jewish establishment, and the Jewish state itself, have consistently suppressed immigration to Israel as an option for U.S. Jews; this stance has never been more irresponsible.

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File photo: New immigrants to Israel arrive at Ben-Gurion International Airport.
File photo: New immigrants to Israel arrive at Ben-Gurion International Airport.Credit: Hannah Korelitz
David Chinitz
David Chinitz

A recent Haaretz headline, “Despite anti-Semitic Wave, U.S. Jews Won't Move to Israel Anytime Soon” reminded me of a family story. My mother used to describe how her younger brother ran into their Berlin home with a big smile and an outraised arm shouting, “Heil Hitler.”

Jews in pre-war Berlin, just as demographer Sergio dellaPergola notes about present-day American Jews, “on the whole enjoy a very high socio-economic status, and that’s not something you give up easily.” One should not jump to analogies, but there’s something perverse about a Jewish academic glibly stepping all over the issue of Jewish vulnerability.

DellaPergola goes on: “But more importantly, there is such a weakening in the relationship of American Jews to Israel that it is simply an illusion to think that they will come here during times of crisis.” Sociologist Steven Cohen adds,” By and large, American Jews are not all that attached to Israel, and most of those who are emotionally attached have shown little interest in moving there.”

Are we right to be so completely disillusioned by the potential for immigration to Israel from the U.S.? Have we given up the fight just before one of its potentially critical and productive testing points?

It is a common position held by the center and left that Israel will lose the demographic battle to survive as a Jewish state unless it withdraws to the security wall. I would suggest that without significant aliyah from North America, we will lose the demographic struggle in any case, whether we end up with one or two states.

That’s because a 50-50 population ratio can't guarantee the future Jewish identity of Israel. But, the sceptics insist, only messianic dreamers really think there is a chance of a significant aliyah from North America.

Let’s consider these “hard-nosed” takes on aliyah. Beginning with those messianic dreamers, wasn’t the whole idea of a Jewish State a pipedream? Hasn’t it been a feature of Jewish political history, from the time of King Cyrus in 510 BCE to the American Council for Judaism in the 20th century, to fail to voluntarily respond en masse to the challenge of Jewish sovereignty? If we’re already talking demography, isn’t it a bit Orwellian to dismiss the notion of aliyah?

DellaPergola and Cohen may have their finger on the pulse, but in the early 2000s the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency commissioned a market research study of the potential for aliyah from North America. The survey revealed that nearly one third of U.S. Jews would consider a move to Israel, even on a temporary basis. If even one third of that one third actually made aliyah, Israel would get another half a million Jewish olim.

Not only would this push back against Israel's Jewish-majority demographic problem, it would also be a huge boon, in terms of both morale and economy, as has every major immigration to Israel. Aliyah by choice would pull the rug out from the anti-Israel propaganda that describes Israel as a colonial outpost to which refugee Jews were transferred by Western countries.

And it would cut into assimilation and the distancing from Israel that Cohen refers to, because every American Jew would have a relative living in Israel.

As far as one can tell, the Jewish Agency's Board of Governors shelved the research; it is not publicly available, and it does not appear that its surprisingly positive outlook for American aliyah was acted upon.

This behavior is rooted in a long standing agreement between David Ben-Gurion and then-AJC head Jacob Blaustein in 1954 to suppress the subject of aliyah. As a result, “concerned" American Jews from both sides of the political spectrum can act out their passion for Israel from afar, and demand that Israel conform to their moral expectations, without the inconvenience of participating in Israel’s actual political process.

As a public policy analyst, I know that realism is important in considering options for the future. But I also know the one of the leading policy analysts of our day, Prof Yehezkel Dror, supported what he called an “Aliyah Project,” as part of a strategy for the Jewish future. Such a project is not limited to “pie in the sky” exhortations, or trying to make American Jews feel guilty about not moving to Israel.

The above mentioned JAFI research project should have resulted in a marketing strategy that would use American olim to tell their story to U.S. Jews, but this was never acted on. I myself suggested to Birthright to supplement the exposure its participants get to Yad Vashem and heroic Israel Defense Forces officers, with visits to the homes of well-settled American olim.

Let Birthrighters see the life, good, bad and ugly, that people similar to their parents are living. No preaching, just exposing young American Jews to aliyah as an option.

Are Jewish and Zionist institutions really so afraid of even suggesting aliyah as an option? How does this play with the idea of North American Jews packing up and moving to Israel being such a “pipedream”?

Let’s put things on the table. Israel has absorbed, with huge success, refugees from three of the four corners of the earth that Jews traditionally mention in our prayers every morning. One corner, the one that would involve aliyah by choice, is missing.

Whether or not the ugly political and social trends emerging in the U.S. (which I witnessed firsthand during a recent six month sabbatical in New York) will make aliyah more likely is unclear. History tells us Jews wait too long, and, in any case, it would be a shame it were no longer aliyah by choice.

But without such an aliyah, a necessary and possibly sufficient condition for survival of the Jewish people and Israel is lacking. The realists can kick back all they want, but perhaps if you will it (and don’t work systematically against it) it is no dream.

David Chinitz is Professor of Health Policy and Management at the Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Public Health. He made aliyah from the U.S. in 1981.

A spokesman for the Jewish Agency for Israel responded:

Bringing Jews to Israel has been at the core of The Jewish Agency’s work throughout its existence, and it remains so today. The Jewish Agency’s innovative strategic plan, developed by our Chairman, Natan Sharansky, reflects our understanding that modern-day Aliyah cannot be marketed like just another product or service – the decision to immigrate from a Western country to Israel will come only out of a deep sense of attachment and a strong Jewish identity.

Our continuum of Israel experiences—bringing young Jews to experience life in Israel for ever-increasing periods of time, from the ten days of Taglit-Birthright Israel through longer-term programs like Masa Israel Journey—was developed with the specific aim of strengthening participants’ Jewish identities and connections to Israel, inspiring them to either return to their communities of origin and become actively engaged in Jewish life, or make Israel their home. And indeed, we find that increasing numbers of immigrants from Western countries are the alumni of our Israel experience programs, demonstrating that our strategic plan is working. We look forward to continuing to bring Jews from North America and elsewhere to Israel well into the future.

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